BY INDICTING former state treasurer Tim Cahill on corruption charges Monday, a Suffolk County grand jury took an aggressive, and welcome, posture toward the possible use of public money to bolster an elected official’s political position. The treasurer’s office has enormous discretionary power over a number of complex, high-dollar areas of state policy, from the pension system to the state Lottery to various obscure contracts. In seeking the indictment against Cahill, Attorney General Martha Coakley is rightly asserting that some uses of that discretion represent clear violations of the public trust.
The public corruption, fraud, and conspiracy charges against Cahill grow out of the Lottery’s decision to spend upwards of $1.6 million on an advertising blitz at the height of the 2010 gubernatorial campaign. At the time, Cahill was challenging Democratic incumbent Deval Patrick as an independent, and he was under heavy attack by Republicans who viewed his candidacy as a potential spoiler. And in August of that year, the Lottery shifted its marketing strategy away from pitching individual games to players and toward touting the agency as a well-managed source of revenues for cities and towns.
State law prohibits politicians from using public resources and their elected positions to further their political interests, and provides stiff penalties for those who do so with a “fraudulent intent.’’ In practice, some forms of self-promotion by elected officials are common; the state treasurer’s smiling visage, for instance, routinely appears in materials connected with returning unclaimed money to Massachusetts consumers.
Yet the shift in Lottery marketing strategy appears to have been a calculated - not to mention pricy - response to a $2 million ad campaign against Cahill by the Republican Governors Association. It would have been worrisome enough if the change had been directed by Cahill’s political staff, but internal Lottery e-mails obtained by the Globe last summer suggested that Cahill himself was deeply involved in the shift.
The former treasurer is entitled to contest the allegations against him. His camp has argued in the past that ads defending the Lottery were necessary because the GOP ads had so scarred the agency’s image. The key question is whether the benefits for Cahill exceeded those for the public. In light of the law and the available record, Coakley has ample reason to prosecute.